Get Fit Without Touching the Ground

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Jennifer McCarthy was one of the first people to sign up when Bumbershoot, an aerial arts studio, opened last October in the old Polar Wave Ice and Fuel Co. warehouse.

The south St. Louis studio, full of high-flying apparatus, is also home to a bakery and recording studio.

"Wait a minute," McCarthy, 37, remembers thinking. "There's actually a class where adults can do this?"

The fun inside Bumbershoot is highly visible thanks to the studio's enormous windows. Passers-by on Gravois Avenue often press against the glass, staring in wonder at the brightly colored silks, ropes, hoops and a trapeze hanging from a 26-foot-high ceiling.

For owner and instructor Joelle Pendergrass, who grew up performing circus skills with her 11 siblings, having her own studio was a dream.

"It's really been a blessing for me to find aerial arts. It's been a therapeutic influence in my life," said Pendergrass, 24, who formerly taught classes for Circus Harmony, a circus school at the City Museum and home to a youth circus troupe. "I wanted other people to experience that."

While Bumbershoot offers classes for children, the focus is on adults. Pendergrass picked the name Bumbershoot, a colloquial term for umbrella, because she imagines an umbrella program of acrobatic classes such as gymnastics and aerial fitness (focusing on cardio rather than mastering tricks) not typically offered for adults.

Classes also are offered in handstands and tumbling, and moms and their toddlers can take some classes together.

There's even a date-night class for couples.

"You can only go to dinner and a movie so many times," Pendergrass said.

Bumbershoot intrigued McCarthy. The gymnastics classes she took as a child had been replaced with aerobic classes at the gym or monotonous minutes on an elliptical machine.

"I was bored out of my mind," she said.

'Beatiful and Graceful'

McCarthy signed up for Bumbershoot's aerial silks class, which involves "dancing" while suspended from two pieces of fabric.

"It is so beautiful and graceful," McCarthy said.

At first, McCarthy's feet weren't strong enough to grip the silks; she slid down as soon as she climbed on.

"Now, I can climb to the top of the ceiling," she said. "It was a huge accomplishment. It's very exhilarating when you do it."

This combination of physical and emotional well-being is what Pendergrass loves about aerial arts. Students often tell her at the start of class that they'll never be able to do this or that: They're afraid of heights; they hate to be upside down; they are not strong enough.

But they always end up surprising themselves, she said.

The feelings of empowerment and self-reliance that come from completing a skill are just as real as the fitness benefits, Pendergrass said.

"The whole goal is that this is therapeutic for the heart, mind and soul," she said.

The exercises are unlike those done in workouts on the ground and work muscles often neglected, Pendergrass said. Moving from one trick to the next involves using nearly every muscle from head to toe.

"You'll be sore in a lot of new places," Pendergrass said.

The dance-like poses also increase flexibility in the back, shoulders and legs.

McCarthy said her arms and back are the strongest they've ever been, matching the strength she's always had in her legs.

"And I can tell a huge change in the definition of my abs," she said.

Inner Ballerina

Many students who come to Bumbershoot are not looking for exercise. Flipping around in the air just seems like something fun to do. Abs of steel are a bonus.

Amy Schumaker of St. Louis, 29 and the mother of three, said class is like discovering her inner ballerina. She started learning aerial silks in January after trying the trapeze at a party held at Bumbershoot.

"I try not to exercise. I can handle dieting, but exercising is really difficult for me. It's boring," she said. "That's one of the main reasons why I love this. I'm building incredible strength, but it feels like playtime."

About 30 classes are offered at the studio. In addition to the silks and trapeze, lessons are also given on the lyra (a large, metal hoop) and corde lisse (soft, thick rope).

Students say progress is made quickly.

"I go through periods of feeling like it's too hard," Schumaker said. "But it's amazing what the body can do over a short period of time. (Pendergrass) guides you through strength-building activities and, before you know it, you're really able to do these things."

Shumaker's latest skill is a "ball up": With a silk in each hand, she holds herself upside down in a ball with outstretched arms.

During a recent Level 2 trapeze class, four women worked on poses with names such as "gazelle" and "sea horse."

Jessica Avery, 39, of south St. Louis County, did a split while hanging upside down. Everyone cheered.

The students are thrilled to discover something that is challenging but fun, carefree and beautiful.

"You can let loose and be that little kid again, hanging upside down in a tree," McCarthy said.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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